BMCR 1997.10.19

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition

, Ancient philosophy, mystery, and magic : Empedocles and Pythagorean tradition. Clarendon paperbacks. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. ix, 422 pages : maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780198149880. $62.00.

Kingsley offers a revolutionary program for the study of Empedocles, the Pythagorean tradition (early and late), and, in fact, of the entire stream of Presocratic thinkers who were concerned with both cosmology and eschatology. If K. is right classicists and historians of ancient philosophy and religion will have to completely rethink many fundamental issues: the mixture of rational and irrational elements in Presocratic philosophy, e.g., the practice of magic and ritual by individuals also committed to physicalist explanations of objects and events; the originality of Plato’s cosmological and mythical speculations; the relationship between ancient Pythagoreanism and its later adherents among the Neo-Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists; and the reliability of Aristotle, Theophrastus and other ancient authorities as transmitters and interpreters of Presocratic views. The book examines so many issues and confronts received opinions on so many fronts it is not surprising that some of K.’s interpretations are more thorough and convincing than others. But even when he does not win one over, inevitably the reader comes away with a fresh perspective on old problems and familiar texts. In this respect alone K.’s study is a great success.

In the first and shortest of the three parts K. attempts to clarify what he considers unresolved puzzles in Empedoclean cosmology, specifically, the identification of gods with the elements.

Hear first the four roots of all things:
Dazzling Zeus, life-bearing Hera, Aidoneus, and
Nestis who moistens the springs of mortals with her tears.—(DK B6)

Reigning orthodoxy equates Zeus with fire, Hera with air, and Hades with earth. K. champions the view—held by some in antiquity and revived briefly at the end of the nineteenth century—that Zeus is air, Hera earth, and Hades fire; near the end of the book, in ch. 22, he identifies Nestis (a cult-title of Persephone, in his view) with water. K. first applies his ingenuity to the identity of air. Beginning with the archaic and classical equation of aither = air, K. traces how aer, which was localized as moist or misty air, gradually displaced the more general term. Aither in turn became the localized term, referring later to the upper heaven whereby it became associated with fire (or the combination of fire and air) by the Stoics. Hence the equation Zeus = fire. Stoic exegesis, K. asserts, has misled us into thinking that Empedocles’ air is aer and that Zeus is fire. K.’s detailed case for the equation of aither with air is convincing, though it is impossible to evaluate it here in detail. However, it should be noted that there is some waffling in his account when he observes that ‘aither is above all the realm of heaven, the outermost region of the universe’ (cf. pp. 17, 35).

More central to K.’s story is the identification of fire with Hades. The misconstrual of Hades as air is ascribed to Platonists (and Neoplatonists) who symbolically interpreted the sub-lunar realm (or atmosphere) as Hades, ‘the dark region of air in the earth’s shadow, the specifically terrestrial region of the atmosphere which is alive with the suffering and wailing of earthbound souls’ (39). The realm of Hades is, of course, below the earth. Why, then, K. asks sharply, should we construe Hades as air? He suggests that we strip away the allegory and anachronism which has crept into our thinking on this point and take Empedocles at his word. He begins part 2 of the book with the Sicilian’s announcement that ‘there are many fires burning beneath the earth’ (B52). What follows is a comprehensive account of the geography and geology of Sicily, highlighting its vulcanism, subterranean rivers of lava and hot mud, and its ubiquitous hot springs. K. makes a powerful argument for linking these subterranean fires with Hades, one that is grounded in concrete detail and an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient literature. Here is one piece he fits into the puzzle. Confronting the fact that Empedocles twice uses the name of Hephaestus when referring to the element of fire, K. focuses on the role of this fire divinity in Sicilian cult and myth, and especially his association with Mount Etna. He concludes that Hades manifests fire in its destructive aspect, whereas Hephaestus as craftsman and creative force (in conjunction with Aphrodite) displays the creative aspect of fire (75). Enhancing the cogency of K.’s detailed presentation is his interpretive principle that ‘the underworld is a place of paradox and inversion. In particular it is the place where polar opposites coexist and merge, and especially the place where the paradox of destructive force being converted into creative power is realized at its greatest intensity’ (77). (Here K. cites with a flourish Milton’s equation of Lucifer with Hephaestus—one instance of his use of late evidence to recover the meaning of ancient images.)

The next episode in this journey through Sicily concerns the Phaedo myth. K.’s claims are certainly provocative: for the geography, cosmological structure, and even the eschatology of this myth Plato is heavily indebted to the Pythagoreans of Sicily and southern Italy. The correspondences articulated by K. between Sicily’s underground rivers (of water, mud, and lava) and Plato’s ‘mythical’ rivers, based on a careful review of many ancient authors, e.g. Strabo, Diodorus et al., are striking indeed, and quite plausible too given Plato’s visits to Sicily and his personal contacts with Italian Pythagoreans. Also informative are K.’s extensive inquiries concerning the deep dark blue of the Cocytus, comparisons with Lake Avernus, and specific associations between the cult of Persephone and Campanian geography. K. goes even further, however, and asserts that, since we should not and in fact cannot separate myth from science in archaic Greek thought, we should not separate the eschatological aspects of the Phaedo myth from its topographical foundations (88). Thus, he asserts, the myth has a geographical provenance. Even more importantly K. takes literally Phaedo 108-9 where Socrates notes that his story was told to him by an anonymous source; likewise for the Gorgias myth (cf. Gorgias 492-3 with pp. 104-5). He adduces evidence that other important features of the myth, viz., the spherical earth and the ‘true earth’, are borrowings from Pythagorean cosmology. On the basis of this putative borrowing he concludes that Plato’s originality in the composition of these two myths, at least, has been wildly exaggerated. ‘Plato,’ he argues, ‘has reproduced—as opposed to created—not just the literal, mythological level but also the symbolic level of interpretation’ (108). In fact, K. believes, ‘there is no evidence whatever that he contributed to the creation—or even the arrangement—of the mythical material in any significant way’ (109). This final judgment is extreme, I think, but let’s pursue this fascinating argument to its conclusion before assessing its cogency.

The subsequent ch. 10, ‘Plato and Orpheus’, breathes new life into the interpretation of Albrecht Dieterich’s Nekyia (1893) that the Platonic myths are indebted to Orphic literature. He draws as well on the wealth of recent research on Orphism (K. is commendably fastidious in citing points made by earlier writers that support his interpretation) and illuminates it by taking seriously the testimony of late Neoplatonists like Olympiodorus and Damascius. K. argues for an Orphic poem, the ‘Krater’ (‘Mixing-Bowl’), whose cosmology and eschatology were transmitted to Plato via Pythagorean oral tradition. (Ch. 11 argues that the author of the poem was Zopyrus of Heraclea, the same as Zopyrus of Tarentum.)

As is evident even from this cursory summary of a very complicated investigation K. often argues from silence or derives striking conclusions from bits of evidence whose connections are not obvious. Particularly as regards his analysis of the Phaedo myth, it seems to me that K.’s case against Platonic originality and for Pythagorean authorship, though intriguing, remains unproven. What most seriously undermines his case is the thinness of the analysis of the myth’s eschatology, especially the different fates for the various types of soul and the structure of the reincarnational scheme. K. assumes, it appears, that, well, since both Pythagoreans and Plato are committed to transmigration and reincarnation, nothing more need be said. In short, he fails to examine statements made about reincarnation made by Plato, Empedocles, or Pythagoreans. Also striking is the fact that he does not compare either the cosmology or the eschatology of the Phaedo myth with those of the myth of Er. K. highlights Meno 81a: ‘I have heard from both men and woman who are wise about divine matters’, emphasizing that the source of Socrates’ testimony is Orphic-Pythagorean. One might suppose that Orphic and Pythagorean elements in the myth of Er would also be of interest, so why is K. silent? Perhaps because the machinery of the afterlife in the myth of Er does not have roots in Sicilian geography. Moreover, it might be argued against K. that, even if Plato borrowed wholesale the subterranean machinery of the Phaedo myth from the Italian Orphic-Pythagorean underground, nevertheless the moral and metaphysical dimension of the eschataology contains some of his own ideas. Moreover, if indeed the eschatologies of the myth of Er and the Phaedo myth are essentially complementary (despite the obvious differences), and if the machinery of the former owes little to Sicilian or Italian geography, then K.’s argument for the inseparability of the physical and the metaphysical loses much of its force. More generally, despite his protestations against those who distinguish ‘myth’ and ‘science’, K. often seems to be more keenly interested in cosmological detail than in eschatological outcomes—precisely the opposite of Plato’s priorities, or so it seems to me. It should be noted in relation to this point that K. thinks Empedocles’ two poems (N.B.) were to be read sequentially, the Purifications first, followed by the more esoteric On Nature. His reason for this ordering—that knowledge of concrete details about the inner workings of nature provides the initiate with information essential to the practice of magic (229)—seem to lead, unaccountably, to the questionable judgment that concretely living the philosophical life involves magical practice. This undefended thesis is perhaps the source of K.’s ambivalent attitude towards Plato: despite Plato’s rationalizing, scientific proclivities his mind also moves in the mythological and mystical grooves marked out by Empedocles, Pythagoras et al.—but not without distortions and corruptions of the earlier tradition; cf., e.g., p. 158. I look forward to clarifications on this issue by K.

The next substantial section of the book (pp. 172-213) concerns the Pythagorean tradition that not the earth but fire comprised the center of the universe. K. articulates brilliantly the variations on this theme: the identification of this fire with Tartarus (inside the earth) by Pythagoreans and a Tartarus below the earth in Philolaus’ cosmology, with the latter’s counter-earth equated with Hades—below the earth but above Tartarus. Both Plato and especially Aristotle are subjected to the lash for almost wilful misunderstandings of a cosmological scheme that extends back to Homer (for whom Tartarus is ‘as far below Hades as heaven is from the earth’ Il. viii.16) and forward to the later Neoplatonists, and even to Albertus Magnus. K.’s detective work in this chapter (‘A History of Errors’) reads like a first-rate mystery novel. It is compelling and convincing.

The third part of the book, ‘Magic’, does full justice to Empedocles the magician, beginning with Fr. B111, which some Presocratic scholars have found embarrassing:

And all the remedies that exist as defence against sufferings and old age,
These you will learn, because for you alone will I make all these things come true.
And you’ll stop the force of the tireless winds that chase over the earth
And destroy the fields with their gusts and blasts;
But then again, if you so wish, you’ll stir up winds as requital.
Out of a black rainstorm you’ll create a timely drought
For men, and out of a summer drought you’ll create
Tree-nurturing floods that will stream through the ether
And you will fetch back from Hades the life-force of a man who has died.

To his credit K. takes these statements seriously, that is to say, as accurate reports of magical practices; he treats in similar fashion Empedocles’ assertion in B112 that he is a god. It is refreshing to read that Empedocles should be seen as a ‘a magician who claimed to be able to use his magical powers to descend to the underworld’ (249). K.’s portrait of the divine magus is persuasive on its own terms and it is also consistent with the extensive research published recently on magic in the ancient world. K. aims to break down the interpretive barriers separating magic, science and philosophy in order to see Empedocles within his own historical context. (Later, he convincingly explodes the arbitrary distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ maintained even by excellent scholars like Zuntz; cf. pp. 308ff.) Central to this problem is the point that for Empedocles (unlike for Plato, say; cf. p. 158) philosophical inquiry and cosmological knowledge have not become ‘theoretical or disinterested’ (229). For Empedocles, he claims (230), the cosmos is alive. (So it is too for Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Again, further clarifications from K. are warranted.) Hence, attempts by scholars steeped in the modern mechanized world-picture to understand him and his fellow mystical cosmologists the Pythagoreans and Orphics inevitably fail to the extent that these earlier thinkers are struggling valiantly to throw off the shackles of pre-rational, mythical thought on their way to scientific rationality. Historians of ancient religion will applaud K.’s unbiased approach to all the available evidence, though some ancient philosophers may balk.

I applaud these larger interpretive conclusions. Nevertheless, I have one difficulty that stems from some arbitrariness on K.’s own part. On his account epopteia, the mysteries, and the pervasive use of initiation vocabulary in Empedocles should not be interpreted as metaphor (230-1). This excellent point is developed in conjunction with discussion of the notion that ‘the ritual sequence of descent into the underworld, death, and regeneration is known to have been practised by the earliest Pythagoreans in the West’ (251). The general theme of ‘descent into the underworld as prelude to a celestial ascent’ is applied to the specific case of Empedocles’ fatal leap into Etna. Here K. is enigmatic: ‘he jumped in [to Etna] so as to become immortal in fact’; ‘to rise up to the gods via Etna’ (255). Later he stresses the symbolic significance of this story—as emblematic of ritual death and transformation—as opposed to its literal truth or falsity (cf. 289). K. rightly stresses the symbolic valence of the tale, but his description leaves one unsure whether he thinks Empedocles really believed he could transport himself to another world by vaporizing himself in a river of lava. Is it anachronistic to speculate that perhaps Empedocles believed that his immortalization entailed transport to an invisible, immaterial realm? Unfortunately, K.’s approach blocks this avenue of interpretation.

K.’s sensitive exploration of ascents and descents points to the existence in the ancient traditions he explores of what he calls ‘mythological dialectic’ (252ff.). He attacks the early Academy (256) and implicitly Plato for eradicating the dynamic complexity from this mythological dialectic (256). This line of argument is quite odd given that the entire structure of the Republic is based precisely on a dialectic of ascent and descent. Socrates descends to the Piraeus, the philosopher ascends out of the Cave but climbs back down, etc. Recall how Er goes down but ends up attaining a celestial vision of the entire universe. Not a word of this in Kingsley’s analysis. He does embed a reference to Rep. 614b-621b in 252n6—but without any comment. Also surprising, since he raises the important point there about the problem of determining whether or not a specific visionary journey is an ascent or a descent, is his neglect of Rep. 518a, which mentions the two types of blindness resulting from ‘going up’ and ‘going down’. Based upon his remarks about Platonic detachment from practical life, one might be led to the conclusion that K. thinks the mystical psychology and eschatology of the central books of the Republic as well as in the myth of Er are to be interpreted metaphorically, which is precisely what he condemns many scholars of Empedocles for doing! In fact, this is the approach to the Parable of the Cave, for example, that one finds in the most influential Plato scholars; cf. T. Irwin, Plato’s Ethics Ch. 16 (Oxford 1995), J. Annas An Introduction to Plato’s Republic (Oxford 1981), Ch. 10, esp. pp. 253ff.

How to fit Plato into these traditions is important inasmuch as K. rightly stresses the usefulness of Neopythagorean and Neoplatonic sources for gaining knowledge of the early Pythagoreans and Orphics. Plato, K. believes and asserts the Neoplatonists believed, is a mere ‘link’ in the chain of transmission and a highly unoriginal one at that. This diminution of the stature of Plato in the eyes of the Neoplatonists is unwarranted. Certainly Pythagoras is crucially important for writers like Iamblichus and Proclus, but Plato’s status is hardly the insignificant one posited by K. Again, the problem here seems to be that K. refuses to read Plato Neoplatonically, while he shows no such reluctance when listening to these late figures speak about Empedocles and Pythagoreans. My point is that his overall argument would have been more convincing had he made more use of Plato as an independent source of the tradition(s) he so ably brings into view. As he notes, this tradition was hardly homogeneous or static: if so, then why make Plato largely a mechanical transmitter of traditional doctrines and only original when he garbles and confuses them?

These criticisms do not detract from many of the book’s important contributions, which I don’t have space to comment on here.

(1) The excellent account of Pythagoras (ch. 19), where K. argues that the miraculous stories about Pythagoras reflect archaic cult practices and, more generally, that the history of Pythagoreanism in antiquity reflects increasing rationalization, not increasing emphasis on the magical and irrational as many have claimed.

(2) The brilliant accounts of Neopythagoreanism (ch. 20) and of theurgy. K. argues that the latter is certainly more than a sinister outburst of irrationality (pp. 302ff.).

(3) His articulation of a ‘Bacchic esotericism’ which links Pythagoreans, Orphics, and the Dionysiac mysteries (263ff.).

(4) Indeed, K. demonstrates repeatedly the distortions and limitations that afflict precise categories as applied to ancient religious texts and practices to the extent that they ignore or suppress the deep underlying connections among Empedocles, ancient Pythagoreans, Hermetists, and Orphics. (cf. e.g. 333-4).

This book is a great contribution to scholarship: invigorating, profoundly learned, polemical, original, and provocative. Everyone interested in early Greek thought should read it carefully.